11 Unserious Photos of Einstein for His Birthday

uni-frankfurt.du
uni-frankfurt.du

Albert Einstein was born on this date in 1879. The German-born Nobel Prize winner possessed a quick, sharp wit along with his enviable IQ, and his tendency to offset the very serious matter of general relativity with a little lighthearted humor is evident in this series of photos.

1. Getting Tongues Wagging

In honor of Einstein’s 72nd birthday, friends and colleagues met at the Princeton Club for a celebration heavy on both merriment and press photographers. Eager cameraman Arthur Sasse tried to coax one final smile from the physicist as he departed for the night; worn down by the festivities, Einstein stuck out his tongue instead. The photo has since become a cultural icon, which Einstein himself liked so much that he ordered nine prints made, and used it to adorn greeting cards.

2. The Lady and the Scientist

 Wikimedia Commons

Behind this great man was this great woman: Elsa Einstein, Albert’s second wife, who moved with him from Berlin to Princeton, and brought along her two daughters from a previous marriage to form the cohesive Einstein family unit.

3. An Enviable Mustache

Despite the uniformity of dress and prevalence of facial hair in this old photograph, something still stands out about Einstein’s trademark mustache—the same mustache that adorns the face of this bobblehead available in the Mental Floss store.

4. Nice Sandals

Southold Historical Society

Pictured here in September 1939, Einstein relaxes on the beach near his Long Island summer home with friend and local department store owner David Rothman. After some initial confusion in the store resulting from Einstein’s thickly accented request for a pair of “sundahls,” which Rothman interpreted as “sundial,” the scientist was able to successfully purchase the white sandals on his feet for $1.35. He laughed off the episode, blaming “mine atrocious accent!” The men remained close friends thereafter, later forming a neighborhood string quartet together.

5. Easy Rider

California Institute of Technology Archives

Even riding free and easy through Santa Barbara, California in this 1933 photo, the award-winning physicist maintains a classic look in his cardigan and dress pants.

6. Stick that in your pipe

An avid smoker, Einstein was rarely seen without his pipe. Despite our contemporary health concerns about the ill effects of tobacco, he was convinced that “pipe smoking contributes to a somewhat calm and objective judgment in all human affairs.”

7. Style for Miles

His face may be perfectly serious, but his robe is perfectly silly.

8. Rock 'em, Sock 'Em

Getty Images

For all his brilliance, Albert Einstein in his later years began to look less like the foremost physicist of his age, and more like the friendly neighborhood grandpa who wore socks with sandals—except that according to many accounts, the scientist with his relentlessly practical mind could never reconcile himself to wear socks regularly, knowing that his big toe would inevitably wear a hole in them and believing that shoes alone would suffice to cover his feet. In light of that information, these socks with Einstein’s face printed on them are hugely ironic.

9. Fierce Footwear

These slippers presumably required no socks.

10. A Hairy Situation

Frankfurt.de

In Albert Einstein’s windswept white mane lie the origins of the mad scientist hairstyle.

11. Puppetmaster

Harry Burnett, 1931

After witnessing a performance by the Yale Puppeteers at the Teatro Torito in Los Angeles, Einstein had only one complaint about his miniature alter ego: “The puppet wasn’t fat enough!” he claimed, and took a letter out of his pocket, crumpled it up, and padded out the character’s belly for accuracy’s sake.  He might have been more satisfied with this plush, soft-toy representation of himself, available in the Mental Floss store—additional stomach padding not included.

The Tumultuous History of Tinsel

PoppyPixels/iStock via Getty Images
PoppyPixels/iStock via Getty Images

When December rolls around, we find ourselves asking the same questions: What’s in figgy pudding? Why do I need to make the Yuletide gay? And what is tinsel exactly?

That last question is only slightly less mystifying than the first two. Many of us have seen tinsel—if not in person, then in one of the countless holiday movies and television specials that air this time of year. It’s the stringy, shiny, silvery stuff that’s hung up as decoration, primarily on Christmas trees. But what is it made of? And why is it associated with the holiday season? This is where the seemingly simple decoration gets complicated.

Tinsel is one of the cheaper items used to trim trees today, but that wasn’t always the case. In 17th century Germany, the first Christmas trees were embellished with tinsel made from real silver pressed into strips. These early Christmas trees were also decorated with real, lit candles, and the silver combined with the flickering firelight created a twinkly effect that worked as a precursor to modern-day string lights.

Silver tinsel did have its drawbacks. It was expensive, so only the wealthiest families had access to it. And those who did have enough money to own tinsel had a limited window to use it, as the metal often tarnished before December 25.

By the early 1900s, the Christmas traditions imported by German immigrants had become mainstream in the U.S. Americans were looking for affordable ways to beautify the evergreens in their living rooms, so manufacturers started making tinsel out of aluminum and copper. The updated decorations produced the same festive sparkle as the silver versions, but for a fraction of the price; also, they could be reused year after year. But they weren’t perfect: The aluminum paper in tinsel was extremely flammable, making it a disastrous choice for dry trees decorated with lights. When World War I began, copper production was funneled toward the war effort and tinsel disappeared from holiday displays.

Its absence turned out to be temporary. Despite centuries of hiccups, makers of holiday decor still believed tinsel deserved a place in modern Christmas celebrations. They just needed to come up with the right material to use, something that could be hung in every home without any backlash. In the early 20th century, the clear choice was lead.

Lead revived tinsel from obscurity, and soon it was embraced as a standard Christmas component along with ornaments and electric lights. It became so popular in the 1950s and ‘60s that tinsel is often thought of as a mid-century fad rather than a tradition that’s been around as long as Christmas trees themselves.

With so many synthetic decorations becoming available around Christmastime, tinsel made from metal was considered one of the safer items to have in the home. A 1959 newspaper article on holiday safety reads: “Tinsel is fairly safe, because even if kiddies decide to swallow it, it will not cause poisoning.”

As we know today, tinsel made from lead isn’t “fairly safe.” Lead that gets ingested or absorbed through the skin can cause headaches, vomiting, constipation, and in extreme cases, brain and kidney damage. Young children are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning.

In the 1970s, the U.S. government started setting limits on how much lead can be in consumer products, and in 1972, the FDA came to an agreement with tinsel manufacturers that production of the lead product would cease.

It may not be as en vogue as it was 60 years ago, but tinsel still resurfaces every holiday season. So if the tinsel we use today isn’t made from silver, copper, aluminum, or lead, what is it? The answer is polyvinyl chloride. Industrial machines shred shiny ribbons of the plastic to make the wispy strands that add a bit of glamour to Christmas trees. Plastic tinsel isn’t as elegant as the kind made from real metal, and it’s lightweight, so it’s less likely to stay put after it’s hung over a pine branch. For these reasons, PVC tinsel never caught on to the degree of its predecessor, but it still succeeds in bringing vintage bling to the holidays without poisoning your family.

26 Fascinating Facts About Fossils

Mental Floss via YouTube
Mental Floss via YouTube

If you’ve never visited the Big Bone Room, you’re in luck. Check out our visit to New York City's American Museum of Natural History for a rundown on fossils, which provide invaluable insight into our understanding of history and its once-living occupants.

In this edition of "The List Show," editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy explains the ins and outs of excavation, fossil follies (extinct giants were a big miss), and the terrorizing prospect of a 3-foot-tall parrot.

For more episodes like this one, be sure to subscribe here!

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